So what prompted the change?
“We say that we ‘major on the majors and minor on the minors,” the EFCA said in an internal document. The denomination noted that they did not take a stance on the Reformed v. Arminian view of conversion, the age of the earth, infant v. adult baptism, and whether the gifts of the spirit had ceased or were still active.
In light of that, “we believe there is a significant inconsistency in continuing to include premillennialism as a required theological position when it is clear that the nature of the millennium is one of those doctrines over which theologians, equally knowledgeable, equally committed to the Bible, and equally Evangelical, have disagreed through the history of the church,” the EFCA stated.
The church has held multiple positions on the End Times held by the Early Church fathers, says Daniel Hummel, a historian of US religion and foreign relations.
“But in more recent evangelical history, postmillennialism dominated in the early part of American history and colonial history,” said Hummel. “People like Jonathan Edwards saw revivals as inaugurating the millennium, as bringing in this deeply Christian era that would last a thousand years and then conclude with Jesus personally returning.”
Then, after the carnage of the Civil War, Americans became more pessimistic, which, in turn, affected their eschatological views.
“Premillennialism become sort of the main tradition and the air that a lot of evangelicals breathe throughout the 20th century,” said Hummel.
Hummel joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss the rise and fall of premillennialism, the influence of Left Behind, and the significance of the EFCA’s decision.
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 174
Could you walk us through what premillennialism is and give us some understanding of the other competing theologies?
Daniel Hummel: If you divide that word into two, the "pre" part and "millennialism" part, millennialism is the belief that there will be a millennium—usually people point to Revelation 20 as “the millennium chapter”—and there will be this period where Jesus will be personally reigning for a thousand years. And the "pre" part is saying that Jesus will come and personally sort of be the king and reign for that millennium.
The two dominant opposing views are "postmillennialism," which is the belief that essentially the church will inaugurate a millennium and then Jesus will personally return at the end of those thousand years, and then "amillennialism," which is a rejection of a literal 1,000-year reign. These three different views have waxed and waned in popularity and in where the scholars of every generation land.
You can find all three belief traditions going back to the early church fathers. But in more recent evangelical history, postmillennialism dominated in the early part of American history and colonial history. People like Jonathan Edwards saw revivals as inaugurating the millennium, as bringing in this deeply Christian era that would last a thousand years and then conclude with Jesus personally returning.
Historians often see the shift towards premillennialism happening in the mid-nineteenth century with the Civil War, with a more pessimistic view of the future coming into a lot of American’s minds. And there's also new theological influences that are making premillennialism much more popular. Premillennialism become sort of the main tradition and the air that a lot of evangelicals breathe, throughout the 20th century.
But there's also a very consistent amillennial tradition—often in reform circles—that is not usually at the leadership of the evangelical movement but is always in the mix as well.
Is there something within the book of Revelations that really seems to suggest one view or the other? There's so much in Revelations that is confusing to understand, so what is it that makes people end up falling into one camp or another?
Daniel Hummel: This part of theology is often is called eschatology, or the study of last things. And one thing to always remember about eschatology is that it's never on its own. People aren't coming to these positions without thinking about the rest of their views of the Bible, how to read the Bible, of how they see the ministry of Jesus, history, and what's happening in the future.
And so if you think about premillennialism, it became very popular among conservative evangelicals in the fundamentalist movement. And part of the reason that community really wanted to have a literal 1,000-year reign with a personal Jesus at the head of it was because they saw themselves reading the Bible very literally. If you take Revelation 20 and read that there will be a literal 1,000-year reign, then it becomes sort of a marker of your theological fidelity overall. Are you're reading this literally or are you reading analogically?
So that's one way that the eschatology view is conscripted into much bigger movements. Because you have to read not just Revelations, but there's passages in Daniel and some of the Hebrew prophets also have parts of their prophecies that are seen to be pointing to this end state. And they all get conscripted into debates about how to read the Bible, and what is the nature of the church and the kingdom of God.
Also, premillennialist have often been leaders in global missions because they see that as the primary task of the church. One of the most famous premillennialists was Dwight Moody, and he often said that his role was to throw out life rafts to save people from a sinking ship that's the Earth. And so every revival was about saving as many souls as he could before Jesus came back. So there's a very visceral need coming out of premillennialism that we need to do as much missions, reach as many people as we can as quickly as possible before time runs out.
Prior to the Reformation, what was the church's position on the end times?
Daniel Hummel: The Catholic Church is largely amillennial. They see the church as the figurative millennium, or the kingdom. This debate over the millennium really comes out of the Reformation in a lot of ways.
There are debates happening all through the Middle Ages and before, but this really becomes a decisive issue after the Bible gets in a lot of different people's hands and a lot of different languages, and people are bringing their own readings of the Bible to the forefront, and actually creating denominations and creating movements based on these readings. And so coming out of the Reformation, you get a lot of millennialist-type sects who see the end near, or who see a certain way that the end is supposed to come.
I think the early church fathers really were anticipating something happening in their lifetimes, and that belief faded as people began to reinterpret the millennium and see the church as this permanent kingdom that Christians need to invest in as opposed to anticipating a sudden cataclysmic event that would inaugurate the millennium.
I think we'd be remiss in not mentioning or discussing how the Left Behind series has shaped Christian imagination and thought around this particular conviction. Can you speak to that?
Daniel Hummel: Even before Left Behind, the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, which was a nonfiction version of essentially the same theology that Left Behind fictionalizes.
Both Hal Lindsay's work and the Left Behind novels are part of a certain type of premillennialism called dispensational premillennialism, which has distinctive features like the teaching that there will be a sudden rapture, at any moment all of the true believers will suddenly just leave the Earth and their clothes will even be left where they were standing or sitting. There's a real big emphasis on a personal Antichrist coming to power and sort of making everyone take the mark of the beast. And that's the type of theology that is really popular among a lot of American evangelicals.
The Left Behind novels were read by people outside of the evangelical world; they sold upwards of 80 million copies with all the novels combined. Hal Lindsay's Late Great Planet Earth has sold more than 35 million copies. And so these are some of the most successful cultural products that Americans have created in last 50 years, and they really popularize a lot of aspects of pre-millennial theology to the masses, to Americans in all walks of life.
I think a lot of Christians assume if you are at all interested in the millennium, or in the end, that you have this particular type of premillennialism on your mind. I read these novels as a kid and just assumed that this was the way Christians thought about the end times. And I think that's one of the bigger influences of the Left Behind novels. It made this assumption, or posited this assumption, in the wider culture that this is "The Christian View" on the end times.
There's also a lot of people within the premillennial world who did not like Left Behind because they took novelistic license with a lot of the theology to make the story work, and actually, some of the more die-hard dispensationalist theologians did not like those turns.
But I don't think a ton of people suddenly became dispensationalist after reading them. I don't think most Christians really define themselves based on how they view the end of the world, but there was a pervasive sense that this is not only something that theologians believe but that a lot of Evangelical Christians believe as well.
These beliefs seems to also be invoked in conversations about views on Israel, which I know this is something that you're an expert on as well. Can you help connect the dots from end-times beliefs to the Christian influence on American foreign policy in support for Israel?
Daniel Hummel: This is where the more laborious term dispensational premillennialism comes in. And one of the key teachings in dispensational premillennialism is that the Jewish people and the Church are two separate covenanted communities with God. And contrary to the traditional view that sees the Church taking the place of Israel after Jesus, dispensationalists believe that there's still a plan in place for the Jewish people.
But this belief leads dispensationalists, in particular, to look with fascination on the Zionist movement back in the 19th century and early 20th century, and then when the state of Israel was created in 1948, dispensationalist saw that as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.
And so since the 1940s, evangelicals who believe in this particular type of premillennialism have been very vocal about supporting Israel and then organizing to that effect in the 60s and 70s. In particular after the 1967 war, which saw Israel capture a lot of the lands that have Biblical resonance for Christians reading their Bible. They saw that as another fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. And many of these premillennialists are looking for what they think is the next literal fulfillment, which will be rebuilding a temple on the Temple Mount.
This has led to these evangelicals being very engaged on this issue, and in more recent years creating organizations like Christians United for Israel, which now has 7 million members that lobbies the US government and is really in line with the Israeli government on trying to protect Israeli interests.
More and more denominations are actually dropping this premillennialist conviction from their statement of faith. Are there two different trends happening at the same time?
Daniel Hummel: I definitely think so.
I think in the world of pop culture and political activism, premillennial ideas are very popular and animate a lot of people. In the world of seminary training and theology, particularly dispensational premillennialism has really lost a lot of its luster and respectability, and premillennialism more generally has become much more contested.
If you go back 50 years to the 1960s or 1950s, there's a lot of premillennialists teaching in the major seminaries that evangelicals go to, and a lot of the most popular pulpits are pre-millennialists. And now today it's much more diverse. There are still important premillennialists perspectives out there, but the landscape is much different and there's a lot more room for amillennial views in particular. There's not many postmillennialists around, there's a few on the fringes, but it's really become a much more diverse theological landscape, even if the popular side is still really dominated by these premillennial themes.
Would you attribute this shift to different Christian leaders, a book that came out, or larger events happening in history? What is responsible for this more recent shift?
Daniel Hummel: Some of it is just the diversification of the education landscape and where pastors go to seminary. So there are still some pretty strong premillennial seminaries—Dallas Theological Seminary is one of them, Talbots Theological Seminary in Southern California is another one—but since the 1940s, there have been a lot of new seminaries that don't have that view. A lot of them are pretty open to different types of views—Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, even the EFCA's Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—they've grown a lot more diverse in their views as well.
I'd also say a lot of the best scholarship in the last 30 or 40 years has really been crossbreeding between premillennial and amillennial scholars. And that scholarship has really created an atmosphere of sharing and learning from each other, as opposed to going back 50 or 60 years when a lot of theologians really defined themselves based on which view of the millennium they held.
We've been talking a lot about the American church, but I would love to get a sense of where you think the global church is in on this conversation. Are you familiar with how this debate is playing out in different parts of the world?
Daniel Hummel: It's really hard to even get a grip. I mean, there's so many different languages where these debates are happening, and obviously so many just different areas where the church is growing rapidly.
I'd say that the concern level on this issue varies a lot. And a lot of it might even depend on the legacy of North American and European missions. A lot of times, whatever the missionaries that travel to other parts of the world brought with them as their concerns filtered their way into the churches that they planted. And so even now you can see some of those legacies.
I'll say on the issue of premillennialism and Israel, it's a growing view among particularly Pentecostal leaning Christians in the global south. There are significant movements to be pre-millennial and to see the nation of Israel a key component to what's going to happen in the future. But you know, that's one part of the global church view. There's certainly a lot of amillennial discussion among theologians in different parts of the globe, particularly as they interact with English-writing scholars and scholars from the West.
I'd say overall though that if you think every era might have its defining issue in the church, right now this is not the issue. This was the issue, at least for the North American and European churches, in earlier generations, but it's not the issue that's dividing people or creating new movements as far as I can tell around the globe.
Do you see any type of fallout or consequence as a result of The Evangelical Free Church of America deciding to remove premillennialism from their statement of beliefs?
Daniel Hummel: The decision was pretty lopsided. I think it was 79 percent of the EFCA gathering voted to get rid of "premillennial" and replace that word with "glorious." So the statement is they believe in "the bodily and glorious return of Jesus." And there's a whole argument on why they wanted to replace pre-millennial with glorious.
The movement to remove premillennial was seen as getting rid of a position that not everyone held, or needed to hold, to be considered a Christian in right standing. And the argument was to replace the word premillennial with glorious because this is something we see in the Biblical text—that Christ's return will be a glorious appearance—and that this would be more in line with what the Bible says.
I think it's also just a convenient way to say we're not just taking something away; we're actually reforming the language to be closer to the Biblical intent. So I think it was in part a legitimate decision to try to get closer to Biblical text, but I also think it was a good strategic decision to not just take something out.
Are there any prominent denominations that still have premillennialism in their statement of faith?
Daniel Hummel: Not to my knowledge. This issue is much more alive in seminaries.
In the EFCA, this issue came up about ten years ago in 2008. It was actually aired at the public gathering and it was decided that it was not the right time to get rid of this language for fears that there would be some churches that would leave the denomination. And my sense of this is that this issue is alive for maybe smaller churches with older populations in them that remember when this was a much more relevant part of the identity of being in an Evangelical Free Church. But churches that are larger or have younger demographics, just don't see any relevance to spending any time on this issue.
I think there's definitely interest in talking about the kingdom of God, and how the kingdom that we have now will relate to the kingdom when Jesus comes back—I think that's a very common thing that a lot of sermons are built around, a lot of discussion is built around—but actually hashing out debates between which type of millennialist are you, the broader implication that you don't have the proper reading of the Bible unless you're a premillennialist, that type of argument is of a much older generation.